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June 16, 2024

Planet Watch: the great global experiment

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David Lowe

Humans have been suffering from COVID-19, but what about the rest of the planet? Social media is full of stories about pollution dissipating and new opportunities for our fellow creatures to breathe, swim and exist, but how deep do these changes go? Is anything big rippling beyond this moment? The signs are confusing. We’re in the midst of a great global experiment.

Image Anja – Pixabay

One hidden gift of this pandemic is time to reflect. As the meme goes, ‘It’s like the Earth just sent us all to our rooms to think about what we’ve done.’

The numbers are certainly dramatic. According to the International Energy Agency, global CO2 emissions are expected to fall by 8% this year due to the effects of COVID-19. This is about six times greater than the effect of the 2008 financial crisis.

A fall of eight per cent

Coincidentally, an 8% drop is roughly equivalent to what Carbon Brief has estimated is needed to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees. To achieve this, people have stopped flying, the cruise industry is out of action (possibly permanently), there are fewer cars and trucks on the road, and many people’s lives have changed beyond recognition. But humans are still eating and the internet servers of the world have been running hot. Mining, logging and factory farming have all continued unabated.

Image Bela Geletneky – Pixabay

The economic shock associated with this 8% drop has been enough to induce panic in most of the world’s leaders, to the point where they’re talking about sacrificing various numbers of their own citizens to keep the economic wheels rolling.

Less smog, more global brightening

Less smog also brings the problem of global brightening. Until now, the aerosol effect has mitigated the greenhouse effect. With less particulate pollution, more of the sun’s heat is reaching the earth’s surface. While this hasn’t yet led to the widespread crop failures some doomsayers have predicted, April 2020 was still the hottest April on record for the globe, according to NOAA.

The bright side of brightening is that there have been far fewer air pollution related deaths in recent months. According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, 11,000 of these deaths were avoided in the UK and Europe in April alone. In some countries, more people are estimated to have been saved in this way than have died from COVID-19.

Global ocean surface temperature on the rise

But still the heat keeps rising, and most of it is going into the ocean. Last month the global ocean surface temperature was 0.83 degrees above the 20th century average. Rising temperatures are devastating reefs, disrupting the food chain and changing currents. And heat is just part of the problem.

Image PIRO4D – Pixabay

Nitrogen run-off from agriculture is creating massive oceanic dead zones with no oxygen, while acidification is making it impossible for many marine animals to build their shells. Aquatic species are going extinct faster than they can be named. If the oceans die, we die. But for many humans this is all out of sight and out of mind, in spite of the fact that one of every two breaths comes from the ocean, and 15% of global human protein intake comes from the sea.

Fossil fuels are not helping

The more fossil fuels we burn, the more the oceans are imperilled. Just to take one striking example, ten years ago the Deepwater Horizon caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico and caused the largest marine oil spill in history, causing ecological devastation. But as Alanna Mitchell explains in her Grantham Prize winning book, Sea Sick, it would have been even worse for the global climate, and the ocean, if the oil had been captured and burned as intended.

Now oil is officially worth less than nothing. There’s nowhere to store what’s been drilled, and tanker ships are unable to unload their cargoes. Gas is in the same situation. But you aren’t going to be paid to fill up your car any time soon. That’s because unscrupulous people are taking advantage of the current situation to further their destructive agendas.

Image Mystic Art Design – Pixabay

Scott Morrison has appointed Neville Power (Strike Energy, Fortescue Metals) to lead the economic recovery team, and the PM is surrounded by other people with similar backgrounds, all of whom stand to gain substantially from a fossil-fuel led ‘recovery’.

This is why the Pilliga gas project is progressing without proper oversight, behind closed doors, and Peabody Energy has just been given the green light to mine for coal beneath Woronora Reservoir, threatening the water supply of Sydney.

Native forest logging is ramping up across NSW, unabated despite bushfire and virus, and the woodchip export industry has just restarted in Eden.

The people who would normally be locking themselves to the bulldozers are stuck at home, under threat of arrest. The student climate strikers have also been forced to move online. It’s the same story from Hong Kong to New York. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to see who is profiting from this situation.

Another conspiracy theory?

Speaking of conspiracy theories, Michael Moore chose Earth Day to release Planet of the Humans on YouTube. The film has been justly pilloried for its hopelessly outdated attacks on renewable energy, but the film makes some valid points too.

Image PIRO4D – Pixabay

Can human technology solve the problems that human technology created? Much as we would all love this to be true, it seems unlikely. Clearly we will have to change the way we live, either by choice now, or by necessity later. Isolation is a great time to plant something!

The fact is that we live on a precarious planet in an unfriendly universe. There are many things over which we have no control (asteroids, the solar minimum, shifting poles, Donald Trump) – each of which might push everything wildly out of balance. The least we can do is to use our intelligence to maintain the balance in our life system as best we can. That means listening to scientists, not billionaires.

If the great global experiment of 2020 has taught us anything so far, it’s that everyone is connected, and tiny things can have world-changing effects.

Tipping points – from the positive to the terrifying – continue to accelerate towards us at great speed. Where and how they collide will determine the fate of our species and many others.

David Lowe
David Lowe – Photo Tree Faerie

Originally from Canberra, David Lowe is an award-winning film-maker, writer and photographer with particular interests in the environment and technology. He’s known for his work with Cloudcatcher Media as a campaigner against unconventional gas and coal.

David has also written Australian history. Many years ago, he did work experience in Parliament House with Mungo MacCallum. David has lived off-grid in the Northern Rivers since 2008.

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  1. Just to avoid a mis-placed complacency, the Carbon Brief actually says:
    “Even this would not come close to bringing the 1.5C global temperature limit within reach. Global emissions would need to fall by some 7.6% every year this decade – nearly 2,800MtCO2 in 2020 – in order to limit warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures.”
    Hence above “8% drop is roughly equivalent to what Carbon Brief has estimated is needed to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees.” means to say 8% drop COMPOUNDED every year for 10 years, so reducing emissions to less than half in 10 years. On a reduction schedule over 50 year, we will ALSO have to draw down over 3 trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. (E.g. in ramping from current 40 billion t/y of CO2 to zero in 50 years, we will emit another 1 trillion tons on top of the present excess that must be removed for a safe climate.)

  2. Another wake up article into the peril we / human race steer ourselves into. But the deniers will soon be flocking to this page to ( again ) denounce the climate and environment emergency as a hoax, alarmism or green extreme left propaganda. Barrow, we especially waiting for you old son.

  3. Also, another clarification is that the 7.6% emissions reductions required per year that are necessary to limit global warming/heating to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels actually means that this will provide us with a 50% chance of keeping the Earth’s global warming below 1.5 degrees (or 66% chance, depending on the modelling used: “Some reports have focused on a 50% chance, while others have focused on 66%”).


    Something to keep in mind, and an argument for a more aggressive emissions reductions strategy.

  4. A well meaning but over ambitious “politically correct” article, attempting to address all perceived evils in one short essay, mixing extreme political bias with scientisms of every kind, without the author’s self- critique to recognise his own confusion.
    To quote Dr. Robert Cassar:
    “…once you begin to see the insanity, that’s part of your sanity. If you cannot see the insanity, that’s because you are swimming in it.”

  5. I am not having a go at your noble intentions , David Lowe.
    I take issue merely with your uncritical assumptions which you state as being “fact”.
    For instance, you claim: “….That means listening to scientists, not billionaires”.
    Yet the only “scientists” whose findings are promoted on mainstream media, are those whose “findings” agree with and promote the agendas of the billionaires, and of big business interests, whilst others genuinely following true scientific method, whose findings are in contradiction of “official politically correct” narrative, are suppressed, censored, obliterated from public view and open discussion.
    And to state as “fact” that we live on a “precarious” “planet” in an “unfriendly” “universe” completely ignores that the living plane or planes of our existence have survived and thrived for a length of time not even fathomable by human minds and continue to do so, and to say that “we live on a planet” is just as much merely a hypothesis as saying that we live on a planette, and denies any other perspective upon the nature of our reality, or “universe”, than a single completely unsubstantiated and biased hypothesis, not necessarily “fact” as you assert.

  6. I’m stirred enough to detect what matters so I’ll
    deal with it in a sensible manner. And thanks
    for your input again, Willow.

  7. We are in a Solar Minimum which indicates
    A mini ice age , but dont tell the lovees this they will go into Meltdown. Hence why northern hemisphere and the southern Hemisphere are breaking records
    For cold weather , i guess this is what Stefanie was referring to with Dr Willow? Mix and match climate
    Extremes well that dos not cut it at all, extremes either way, dont rule this out as climate change as well the great chris Flannery adviced . Have you ever heard so much nonsense!! all your future predictions is just hypothetical computer modeling !! Keep planet
    Warming below 1.5 of a degree its a guessing game.. alarmist the whole lot of you .. even the Greenpeace ex CEO admits this Global Warming hysteria is a hoax .. deniers!! yes majority of the world are deniers and for good reason .
    David lowe , Dr Willow you are obviously educated
    On this Global Warming hysteria..PLEASE explain
    Medieval Roman Warm period.. and yes Joachim
    Stefanie the same request time and time again !
    I know i will ASK COMPUTER MODELING.. !!

  8. Ida…. a short add-on. Fact is a word that confuses &
    often appears soon after it’s not what it was seen
    & believed to be because all the bits & pieces were
    not part of the calculation. However, you are
    correct in saying [my words] that our billionaires
    are behind the ‘politically correct narrative’ that touts
    climate change [main-stream media] is all in our
    heads because it does not exist. Lies & damned
    lies. Backside kissing politicians infuriate me. And
    yes, the ‘professional’ scientist is silenced. We let
    it happen.

  9. Barrow, the Greenpeace CEO you refer to as having ‘admitted
    Global Warming is a hoax’ was never a CEO – nor was he a
    Greenpeace founder although he claimed to be. His name is
    Patrick Moore – a Canadian. See ‘Greenpeace Statement On
    Patrick Moore – Greenpeace USA.’ Moore has worked for
    Mining & Logging Industries, the Nuclear Industry & Biotech-
    nology. He is ‘a Speaker & Pro-Corporate Spokesman.’ Go
    check it out.


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